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Why Big Tech sat out the Super Bowl

February 8, 2021, 3:29 PM UTC

Sometimes the Super Bowl is an action-packed battle. Sometimes, like last night, it’s pretty much a snoozer, with one team dominating the other. But there’s always the commercials for entertainment. It’s maybe the one time of year I’m not hitting the Tivo fast-forward button during every ad break.

In recent years, the rise of Big Tech has led to a bevy of memorable multimillion dollar spots in the big game.

Two years ago, Microsoft had a heart-rending ad showing disabled children using its adaptive Xbox controller and Google also had me near tears with its ad showing the power of its realtime translation app. Amazon had a funny one about the products that didn’t make the cut that year, too.

Last year, Amazon featured Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi in a pre-Alexa world, Microsoft took us behind the scenes with ground-breaking female NFL coach Katie Sowers, and Google again jerked the most tears with a spot about a man using its service to remember his wife Loretta. Facebook also debuted its first-ever Super Bowl ad, with Sylvester Stallone and Chris Rock highlighting the diverse offerings of Facebook Groups.

This year? 🦗🦗🦗

Google, Microsoft, and Facebook sat out. Apple was, as usual, also absent. And Amazon’s very attractive ad with Michael B. Jordan, released ahead of the game, didn’t run until late in the fourth quarter when the game was nearly over and half the audience had probably gone to bed.

Now, there could be several explanations for the absences this year. For one, many big brands including Budweiser, Coke, and Pepsi decided that the midst of an ongoing pandemic was not the time to invest in an expensive ad (though some related brands did). And maybe we’ll hear more directly from some of the tech companies if they’re asked.

But it’s also likely yet another sign that Big Tech has gone from beloved to bedeviled.

After multiple antitrust lawsuits, investigations by Congress, and a shift in public focus to bad behaviors, it was probably hard to justify running feel-good commercials that would likely be seen as cynical attempts to change the conversation. A Fortune and SurveyMonkey poll last month found 64% of Americans worried about Big Tech’s antitrust violations and 48% supporting the breakup of at least one of the companies. The problems of Big Tech in 2021 are too big and too serious to laugh (or cry) off with even the most compelling of Super Bowl ads.

On the other hand, a tech company with perhaps the worst recent publicity run—Robinhood—still ran its ad with the tag line, “We are all investors.” Investors in MEMESTONKS, I guess.

Still, that left plenty of room for smaller tech companies to crack us up. In a Gen X-meets-Gen Z piece, Uber Eats paired Wayne’s World duo Mike Myers and Dana Carvey with pop star Cardi B. Logitech had Lil Nas X saluting “the makers, the ground breakers, the creators.” And there was also the cute spot for Intuit’s TurboTax that emphasized the weird and wacky variety of tax rules in different states (do they really tax flatulence from cows in some states? What does that even mean?). And what about all those lil tech companies that squeezed in? Mercari, Fiverr, Vroom, and Dexcom ran spots. Does Oatly count as a tech company? Food tech? Will all of these companies last through next year’s Super Bowl? (2020 advertiser Quibi didn’t make it to this year’s game.)

Far from tech, there were plenty of funny and moving spots from other brands. One of my favorites was Toyota’s commercial telling the story of Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long. It was extremely moving, though nothing much to do with cars.

Ducking out of this prominent spot is one way for Big Tech to deal with its current troubles. Now the question is, will they be back for Super Bowl 2022?

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Makers, ground breakers, creators. There was no Tesla Super Bowl ad, but Elon Musk is getting plenty of headlines on this Monday morning. The electric carmaker said in a filing that it had bought $1.5 billion of Bitcoin and would start accepting the cryptocurrency as payment. The price of bitcoin shot up to almost $44,000.

Turn me loose, I ain't nobody's golden goose. Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son says his company, SoftBank Group, is like the goose that laid golden eggs. It seemed to be true this quarter, as SoftBank's controversial Vision Fund posted a record gain of $8 billion thanks to the surging value of its tech stock holdings like Uber and Doordash.

Vroom, vroom, splat. On again, off again Apple car rumors are off again. Hyundai Motor and its affiliate Kia Motors said in regulatory filings on Monday that they are not currently in talks with Apple. Speaking of regulatory filings, Clover Health, the health tech firm attacked by Hindenburg Research last week, said the research firm made "sweeping inaccuracies and gross mischaracterizations,” while acknowledging inquiries from the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission.

Consequences. Microsoft is the latest company saying it will not make political contributions to candidates running in 2022 who objected to the certification of electors for President Joe Biden or called for overturning the election results. The company had put all donations on pause after the riot at the Capitol last month. PayPal CEO Dan Schulman says he received death threats after banning groups that advocate violence, hatred, or racial intolerance from his company's apps.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Continuing the theme Robert brought up last week, India shut down Internet and phone service to thwart protests planned over the weekend by farmers. And in Myanmar, Twitter and Instagram got blocked by the military government that seized power in a coup last week, following a similar order against Facebook.

Baby, can you focus on me. Boston area startup Metalenz came out of stealth mode last week to reveal its new camera technology built from silicon nanostructures. Using Metalenz's techniques, a lens in a smartphone could be attached directly to the phone camera's image sensor, making it much smaller and more efficient.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

While Apple and others feud about making smartphones more private, the current state of affairs might surprise you. The New York Times got a hold of smartphone location tracking data for thousands of people in the area of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. And it's pretty revealing.

The data we were given showed what some in the tech industry might call a God-view vantage of that dark day. It included about 100,000 location pings for thousands of smartphones, revealing around 130 devices inside the Capitol exactly when Trump supporters were storming the building. Times Opinion is only publishing the names of people who gave their permission to be quoted in this article...While there were no names or phone numbers in the data, we were once again able to connect dozens of devices to their owners, tying anonymous locations back to names, home addresses, social networks and phone numbers of people in attendance. In one instance, three members of a single family were tracked in the data.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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BEFORE YOU GO

When I lived in New York City in the 1980s, I saw some amazing street art AKA graffiti. Among the memorable images you'd see everywhere from a subway car to a construction site were large renditions of cartoon characters from the video game Space Invaders. The artist responsible was Don Leicht, who died recently at age 74. Leicht turned to street art after being turned down by galleries and still forced his art into the public's consciousness. Don't be deterred by obstacles in your way this week.